Criticism

Beauty is an experience, not a thing

The composer and podcaster Samuel Andreyev recently posted a video asking whether avant-garde music can be beautiful. In answering yes, he claims that “The category of the beautiful is incredibly elastic and unstable.”

I agree that beauty is elastic. And there’s a reason why it’s elastic. That’s because beauty is an experience, not a thing, and our experiences are partially created by our expectations.

We find beauty where we expect it to be. Some people who expect to find beauty in avant-garde music might not expect to find it in a pop song; and some who expect to find it in a pop song might not expect to find it in avant-garde music. These expectations are self-fulfilling. They set us on different pathways of perception.

I don’t meant to say that expectation alone creates beauty — there’s more to it than that. But expectation plays a bigger role than we often assume.

Every person should ask: Am I sometimes finding beauty in places where I didn’t expect to find it before? If the answer is yes, your fortune is good. If the answer is no, that’s an indication that you might be missing out on… unknown beauty.

There’s a second point that’s important though, particularly when it comes to avant-garde music, however one defines “avant-garde.” Just because something is complex, confusing, and unfamiliar doesn’t mean that it is necessarily profound beyond your comprehension and that you are merely failing to appreciate its greatness. It’s pretty easy for an artist to generate things that are complex, confusing, and unfamiliar. Not all such products reward our attention and faith — some are just bad.

I used the word “bad,” but how can I do that if I’m arguing that beauty is elastic? How can I do that if I believe that beauty is an experience shaped by expectation?

For me, being an active listener involves a tension between keeping an open mind and ear, and being honest about how something actually makes me feel. Let me emphasize the word tension. You can only grow by opening yourself to new possibilities. But at some point, after you’ve worked to learn more about a piece, to understand its particular aims and techniques, you have to return to your own experience: are you moved? Or not?

If we never allow ourselves to draw the conclusion that a piece is bad, always trusting that there must be something in a bewildering piece that we just haven’t understood yet, we’re not being authentic. As much as we try to keep an open mind, conclusions are inevitable: there are some albums we reach for, and some that stay on the shelf. There are some paintings we hang on our wall, and some we skip over when when we see them in a museum.

If conclusions are inevitable, the important question is what do we do with our conclusions? I’ll argue that positive and negative conclusions should be treated differently.

If we draw a negative conclusion — if we decide we don’t like something — we should question the conclusion every once in a while. Give the piece another chance. There’s no value in broadcasting a negative conclusion to the world, because all that might happen is that we discourage someone else from exploring a work of art that they might have the potential to appreciate, even though we don’t.

But if we draw a positive conclusion, we should trust it. If we decide we really like something, we should tell everyone.

See also: Art And Weed.

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